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Announcement draws skeptical reaction in U.S.

WASHINGTON—Judging from the initial reactions, Tuesday's announcement by the top U.S. commander and top U.S. diplomat in Iraq of benchmarks for progress and a loose timetable for drawing down American troops appears unlikely to influence the Nov. 7 congressional elections.

Republicans generally ignored the latest midcourse correction in Iraq, and Democrats denounced it as more of the same. Even the White House seemed to downplay the significance of the news conference by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey.

Casey said he expected Iraqi security forces to take the lead role from American troops over the next 12 to 18 months. Khalilzad said he expected significant progress in the coming year on milestones related to security, economic development and political reconciliation. Both men wrapped their comments in qualifiers and avoided firm predictions, but their tone was unmistakably optimistic.

With congressional elections two weeks away, President Bush is under pressure to ease voters' concerns about the war. A new McClatchy-MSNBC poll of eight Senate battleground states found that Iraq remains by far the dominant issue, despite weeks of news coverage about the page scandal in the House of Representatives, North Korea's nuclear test and record highs in the stock market.

That's bad news for Republicans, because voters who said Iraq was their top concern support Democrats by ratios of 2-to-1 or more. Democrats need to pick up six Senate seats to take control of the chamber, and 15 seats in the House.

"We've been hearing White House promises to turn things over to the Iraqi forces for years—in 2006, in 2005, in 2004, in 2003—but nothing ever seems to change," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said of Tuesday's announcement in Baghdad. "I don't think the American people are going to take it very seriously."

Others accused the administration of trying to manipulate public opinion for the election.

"Two weeks before the election they're confusing the public by making these conflicting statements. The only thing that's going to change the public's perception of Iraq is a redeployment of our troops and forcing the Iraqis to work this out themselves," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.

Pollsters said voters were much more likely to be influenced by events in Iraq than by policy pronouncements from either political party.

"Whatever it is the president says has to be backed up by reality on the ground showing things getting better," pollster John Zogby said.

Bush and his allies made no effort to draw attention to the remarks in Baghdad. The president focused on the economy while campaigning for Republican candidates in Florida. Vice President Dick Cheney didn't mention the benchmarks or the timetable in a friendly interview with conservative commentator Sean Hannity.

Administration officials are all too aware that timetables and predictions can come back to haunt the person who makes them. On May 31, 2005, Cheney said the Iraq insurgency was in its last throes.

"I think that was premature," he acknowledged last week in an interview with Time magazine.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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